Why does hospital give free tattoo removals to gang members?


Those lotions and potions pitched as revolutionary ways to remove tattoos quickly and painlessly for a low, low price (plus shipping and handling, of course) have always sounded sketchy to me even — if it is seen on TV.

But wait, there’s more.

When I saw a recent advertisement from Walla Walla General Hospital in the U-B for a tattoo-removing laser, I instantly thought this could be the real deal. It wasn’t a great mental leap. The promise of good health is generally better at hospitals than from products sold at midnight on infomercials sandwiched between come-ons for vegetable slicers and car waxes tougher than a vat of strong acid.

I read further to find that General Hospital’s service is free for removal of drug- and gang-related tattoos.

What’s up with that? Can’t those who have tattoo-regret use the latest in technology to have their ink removed? And why free for drug- and gang-related tattoos.

After a making a few calls and sending several emails (asking for the tattoo-removal department garnered more chuckles than help), I finally hooked up with Kristi Spurgeon Johnson, the hospital’s director of marketing. She pointed me in the right direction — Dr. Robert Betz.

Betz is an obstetrician and gynecologist who has been practicing locally for more than 20 years. A obstetrician who does tattoo removals? What’s up with that (times two)?

Betz has no trouble explaining. It’s all about helping people. He and five other doctors of various specialties are splitting up the work for a good cause.

In this case, it’s those who want to get out of the gang life and all that goes with it because of their tattoos. The visible ink on their arms, hands, neck and face also have become a barrier to employment.

“They can’t get out (of gang life). People don’t want to hire them,” Betz said. “We want to help people become productive members of society.”

So Betz and others put together a plan that led to a $70,000 grant from Sherwood Trust. And they got a discount (Betz wouldn’t tell me how much) from the laser manufacturer, Quanta, to obtain the $150,000 state-of-the-art tattoo removal laser.

The result is a program called INK-OUT. Patients began the process of tattoo removal this summer.

Inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary, and perhaps from elsewhere, could also be considered for the free tattoo removal.

However, the removal procedure will not be not limited to those trying to escape their past. Betz said anybody who wants to have tattoos removed can have it done for a fee.

Given the growing number of people with tattoos (some better than others), I think the need for removal will soar.

Betz couldn’t say exactly how much laser removal would cost patients because that varies greatly depending on how many treatments are needed. The size of the tattoo as well as the color are some of the many factors.

One treatment for an area of the size of a standard business card (3.5 inches by 2 inches) cost $50.

The fee does not go to the hospital or the doctors, it goes to keep the INK-OUT program operating and some of the cash will be sent to Helpline, an organization that helps people get back on their feet.

Tattoo removal treatments can take months.

And, Betz warns, it can be painful. He said most sessions usually focus on an area no bigger than 8-by-10 inches.

“That’s about all most people can stand,” Betz said.

So how does this work? Are the tattoos burned off?

Not exactly, Betz said, it has more to do with colors, light and energy. Like a professor teaching Science 101, Betz reminded me that dark colors absorb more light while lighter colors reflect light.

The laser’s infrared light is calibrated to the proper place on the color spectrum for the color of the tattoo ink being targeted. When the infrared light hits it passes through the outer layers of skin to the ink. It instantly generates energy that heats the pigment cells to 1,500 degrees causing them to explode.

This breaks the ink into ultra-tiny particles. The body’s immune system then takes over, rushing in to get rid of the ink.

The body must heal after each session, which is why it takes months to complete.

Depending on the tattoo, it can take five to 15 sessions with six to eight weeks between sessions.

The final result is usually very good, Betz said, with little to no scarring. But darker tattoos are usually harder to get off. In addition, not all tattoos are put on in a licensed tattoo parlor. Some are done in less-than-sanitary situations in homes, on the street or even in prison cells. Also a factor in success.

Betz and the other doctors are involved in the project, as are others who work in and out of General Hospital. The Health Center at Lincoln High School also has a role.

The physicians will be in a rotation overseeing the treatments. A doctor will be present during the first treatment for each patient, but not necessarily every subsequent treatment. Trained technicians will handle the laser.

Betz wants to make it clear INK-OUT is a team effort.

“I’d like to see this (program) as a life changer,” Betz said.

Rick Eskil can be reached at rickeskil@wwub.com or 509-526-8309. If you, too, wonder what’s up with that,contact Eskil and maybe he can find out.

This article was modified on July 15, 2013, to reflect the following correction/clarification:

The medical specialty of Dr. Robert Betz was incorrect. His speciality is obstetrics and gynecology. We regret the error.



rduran says...

What a great thing to do for our community!

Posted 25 July 2013, 11:47 a.m. Suggest removal

jennybuggs says...

Awesome program

Posted 25 July 2013, 3:17 p.m. Suggest removal

cougfan2759 says...

Congratulations to those who worked on this project. This is great asset to the community and for those in need of the service.

Posted 25 July 2013, 4:12 p.m. Suggest removal

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